Opinion: Paul Lynch

103

Voters are being turned against bus operators in a politician’s bid to seize control. Paul Lynch, Managing Director of Stagecoach Yorkshire, says it all for the bus industry when he outlines the reality of Yorkshire’s partnership approach to bus services vs. London-style franchising.

Bus services in Yorkshire are enjoying a renaissance – but you wouldn’t know if you listened to politicians trying to win your votes at the general election on 7 May.

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Michael Dugher is MP for Barnsley East, but it is worrying how little grasp he seems to have of buses in his own backyard outside the bubble of Westminster.

 

Change how people think

Our region’s high quality bus services are integrated with trams and trains in Sheffield, help people get to hospitals and education facilities in Barnsley, connect with business parks in places like Manvers and bring trade to the high street in Rotherham.

They can’t go everywhere, just like our health service can’t fund every drug or medical treatment. But buses are keeping our region’s communities connected and the economy moving.

Bus companies are not interested in the status quo, they want to change the way people think about the bus. They are also working with local authorities on a new approach to delivering bus services. That partnership approach is working.

In Sheffield, Stagecoach, First, Sheffield City Council, Sheffield Community Transport and the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive have embraced their shared responsibility to improve bus services. Fare-paying passengers are up nearly 8% and customer complaints down by a third. Bus punctuality is 91.5% and reliability is 98.6%. And it’s all due to a joint approach.

The same success is being achieved in Rotherham with collective decisions taken in the interests of local people. In just six months, fare-paying passengers have risen by 240,000 – an increase of 6%. More buses are running on time and some fares have even fallen.

 

Satisfaction is higher

Some politicians seem to have an obsession with London and like to talk down our regions. The reality is that bus passenger satisfaction in Yorkshire and other big cities is even higher than it is in London.

Over the past decade, average fares outside London where they are set by bus operators have risen less than in the capital where they are set by the public sector.

Stagecoach has the lowest bus fares of any major bus operator in Britain. In Barnsley, we offer unlimited weekly travel for just 10 a week and the price of our local day ticket has not increased since 2007 – three years before Mr Dugher became an MP.

Despite bus industry costs currently running at about four times the rate of RPI inflation, major operators have continued to invest big sums in improving services right through the economic downturn.

England’s main city regions have benefited from around 1.3bn of investment in the last five years. Smart multi-operator bus ticketing is also being rolled out in our biggest city regions during 2015.

Of course, Britain’s bus network faces challenges. Government austerity measures have hit local councils hard.

But Mr Dugher’s attempt to blame bus companies for public sector cuts is ludicrous.

Independent figures show that bus operators are funding an increasing proportion of the country’s bus network – not less. Councils have cut the bus services they pay for by 24% in the past four years, while routes fully funded by commercial bus operators have grown every year over the same period.

 

Half-baked plans

Labour’s plans for London-style bus contracts in Yorkshire and elsewhere are half-baked. Mr Dugher doesn’t even know how much his policy will cost.

That should worry Yorkshire’s taxpayers who have already seen big reductions in budgets for policing and social care, as well as the impact on public sector jobs, libraries and children’s centres. If councils can’t afford the services they currently run, where is the money to fund extra responsibilities?

These plans are not about ‘Passenger Power’ – they are about political power and getting the keys to 10 Downing Street. Mr Dugher says he is a friend of the ‘white van man’ but he has set out no practical ideas on tackling the worsening congestion affecting motorists, public transport users and our economy.

He is also silent on what his plans would mean for the jobs and businesses of Yorkshire’s small bus companies when 98% of London’s bus network is delivered by just eight companies.

Bus companies and local authorities in South Yorkshire have moved on from the old divisions and ideology of years ago and now take joint responsibility for buses. It is time Mr Dugher caught up, or he will miss the bus.